On a cold February day, Justin Townes Earle was boarding the 6 train at Astor Place when the conductors changed shifts. It was freezing in the tunnels, and the conductor coming off work was “cussing his brains out,” Earle recalls. Which inspired the singer-songwriter to head back home and start writing “Workin’ for the MTA,” a spare, subterranean blues highlight on his new album, Harlem River Blues. With its low drum shuffle mimicking the click of the tracks, it’s “a train song for modern times,” he says, a traditional country form inhabiting a new, urban environment. It’s New York City country music.
A Nashville native, Earle moved here between recording his first album, 2008’s The Good Life, and his second, 2009’s Midnight at the Movies. Like his hero, Woody Guthrie, and his father, Steve, he’s the rare country artist who thrives in the city, who eschews dirt roads for crowded streets, honkytonks for corner dives. Disguised as a love song, “One More Night in Brooklyn” chronicles his time living in the remote reaches of the borough, where “you’re either in a rough neighborhood or you’re surrounded by hipsters or you’re surrounded by strollers,” he explains. “None of those things I particularly like being around.” Earle now lives in Manhattan—“I stay there. I don’t really leave the East Village for much if I don’t have to.”
Compared to the more “laidback” and “soft-spoken” Nashville, New York provides an overload of stimuli. “It’s a city that’s shaped by what we all bring to it and what we have to offer,” Earle says. So Harlem River Blues packs in Southern gospel, ruminative folk, rambunctious honky-tonk, and Muscle Shoals soul, all with an old-school country sensibility. There aren’t too many people bringing this music to the city, and fewer still rethinking what it can mean here. “All the country songs about country shit have already been written,” he says. “That’s one reason why good country music really doesn’t exist that much anymore, because it’s become cliché.”
Blues, however, addresses evergreen topics: women, drinking, trains, God, and hard times. The title track may be the most purposeful suicide note ever written, an almost sardonically upbeat gospel number about drowning yourself along with your sorrows, sung by a man who didn’t exactly leave his considerable troubles back in Nashville. Earle has a long history of drug abuse, having OD’d, rehabbed, and relapsed repeatedly; in interviews and in song, he is frank about his addictions and his perpetual recovery, as if constantly fending off self-destruction.
New York City encourages his best as well as his worst tendencies, providing inspiration and temptation almost in equal measure: “Everybody has these small apartments, so everybody’s living room is usually a bar. Drinking and drugs are very accessible to me. I was in the throes of a lot of heavy drinking and partying. I won’t even call it partying, because I wasn’t having much fun.” In September, his behavior culminated in a disastrous show in Indianapolis, followed by his arrest for, among other charges, destroying a dressing room and assaulting the venue owner. Earle soon canceled his tour and entered rehab. He’s making up the dates with a tentative sobriety. “I’m definitely not cured,” he says. “There are certain things I can do for myself that offer me a reprieve from my addiction, but I will never promise anybody or myself that I’ve had my last drink or my last drug. I know better than that.”
Earle writes about that slow, solitary descent into “doing stuff I know I shouldn’t do” on “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” a lowdown soul number that nods to Little Richard and evokes the precariousness of sobriety. “Why do I try my luck?” he asks rhetorically. “I should never touch the stuff.” It’s a characteristically candid moment that shows he’s found a way to be at home, both in the city and among his demons.
Justin Townes Earle plays Webster Hall December 18